STATEN ISLAND, NY – The journey began in the middle of June. A convergence of recent college draft picks, international free agents, and high school prospects entered the clubhouse ready to embark on their professional careers. Optimism about the challenge ahead and a potential for greatness filled the minds of these 18 to 22 year olds, who sought to accomplish something unique with the opportunity to potentially advance to high level of the minor league system by season’s end. Eighty games and three months later, two teams stood alone with championship dreams remaining both alive and within reach. The West Virginia Black Bears, an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Staten Island Yankees were the lone adversaries with a chance to claim the championship as their own. On Tuesday night, the Black Bears completed their mission, sweeeping the Baby Bombers in two games to win the title by a 3-1 final.
The season began with high hopes and lofty expectations for the Black Bears, who hibernated in Morgantown, West Virginia after spending the better part of two decades in Jamestown, New York across four separate affiliations. A changing economic climate coupled with financial troubles necessitated the move and the opportunity to rebrand its image provided an invaluable pursuit for the franchise. Led by recent top draft picks and prospects Ke’Bryan Hayes, Kevin Newman, and Kevin Kramer, the Black Bears rebounded from a 7-11 start to win 35 of their final 58 games despite the promotions of Newman and Kramer to hold off the surging State College Spikes and win the New York-Penn League wild card.
The Black Bears, surging with confidence, found a way to a defeat the top-seeded and consensus favorite Williamsport Crosscutters in a three game triumph, propelling them into the league final against the Staten Island Yankees. Just over 24 hours after their victory in the semifinal, the Black Bears, leaning on their home field advantage, shocked the Baby Bombers, taking Game 1, by a 4-3 final in eleven innings, with West Virginia’s Daniel Arribas driving home the winning to set the stage for the venue change heading into the Game 2.
Trailing for the first time in any divisional or playoff race since August 3rd, the Staten Island Yankees pinned their hopes on the top pitching prospect in the organization, James Kaprielian, making just his fifth professional start and his second in postseason play. Undaunted by the surroundings and leaning on his experience pitching in the College World Series for the UCLA Briuns, Kaprielian provided everything the Baby Bombers asked of him and then some, retiring twelve of thirteen batters he faced after walking the first two men to face him to open the proceedings. “Overall I think I did ok, but I think I need to be able to make adjustments”, Kaprielian said. “I pride myself on being a competitor. I felt good to go. There is an understanding and a plan for me. For the bigger picture, I am going to do the right thing and trust the process.”
A scoreless affair until the fifth inning, Staten Island appeared to provide Kaprielian all the run support he seemed to need on a towering home run over the left field fence by Jhalan Jackson for a 1-0 lead. Standing on the mound with the poise of a first round draft pick, Kaprielian made every effort, lasting a career high six and one thirds scoreless innings, while fanning six in the process. “Kaprielian’s health and his development is first and foremost”, Staten Island Yankees manager Pat Osborn said. “He did more than enough to put us in a position to win and unfortunately he had to come out of the game. It is what it is.” After Kaprielian left the mound for the final time this season, a reoccurring theme appeared as West Virginia first baseman Carlos Munoz homered off Staten Island reliever James Reeves to even the ledger and once again deny Kaprielian a chance at his first professional victory. Kaprielian’s opposite number Dario Agrazal was equally impressive, striking out nine in just over five innings of work, finishing the playoff year with a 1.54 earned run average. With both clubs tied at one in the ninth inning one pitch out of the hand of Josh Roeder and a one swing by third rounder Casey Hughson with a runner on base clinched the New York-Penn League championship for the West Virginia Black Bears in their inaugural season.
For the six-time New York-Penn League champion Staten Island Yankees, the loss is their first in the championship round and sends them down to instructional league in Tampa two wins short of their ultimate goal. In an organization committed to winning a title at every level, the defeat comes at surprise, but does not dampen the efforts made by a prospect-laden roster.
Featuring eight of the Yankees top ten draft picks at one point or another this season, Staten Island had all the expectations of a playoff contender. Jackson and Kaprielian paced the club at the plate and on mound respectively at various junctures of the season. The first year coaching staff of Pat Osborn, Butch Henry, and Eric Duncan kept the group together through a McNamara Division championship and a semifinal sweep of the Tri-City ValleyCats, while keeping the club in first place for the final 34 days of the season. Players such as Domingo Acevedo and Thairo Estrada emerged as prospects and others like Trey Amburgey made a name for themselves as they carried the club through the dog days of summer and into the postseason. “I think these kids have grown, just because they were involved in close games in the playoffs,” Osborn added. “These kids have matured greatly. I think that’s the biggest thing getting into these playoff situations because it is tough and is not easy and hopefully the feeling they have through this playoff series stays with them and when they make it to the big leagues with the Yankees, they are ready to go.”
As the weather cools from a rewarding summer and the winds of change accompany winter, the West Viriginia Black Bears celebrate an accomplishment that will resonate with youngsters with varying degrees of status and ability. For those destined for major league stardom, the championship will be a footnote in what is expected to be a long career filled with a myriad of accolades and awards. For others whose future will likely be away from the diamond this is the crowing achievement in their athletic pursuits. The camaraderie shared with their teammates through the victories and defeats will forever be looked upon proudly through the winter and beyond before a new season draws near and new goals are planned as each player takes another step towards reaching the major leagues and achieving their long awaited dreams. In their maiden season in West Virginia, the Black Bears exceeded every potential expectation entering the season and captured the New York-Penn League championship with rookie manager and former major league catcher Wyatt Toregas leading the charge from the dugout.
Though its future is entrenched in Morgantown, the legacy of the franchise as a founding member of the New York-League resides in Jamestown, where the Pittsburgh Pirates spent its last two seasons affiliated in the league. The championship is also a stepping for Neal Huntington and the Pirates who can eventually look towards the minor league system to sustain the recent success in the Steel City and potentially serve as the foundation to a future World Series championship in Pittsburgh.